Jerusalem is dear to me in a way no one can imagine, lest any doubt my passion for this immortal city where my grandparents are buried, in whose holy sites I have prayed, and on whose narrow and aromatic streets I have made the pilgrimage every time I have returned to Palestine. I also recognize that since 1967, fatwas have been routinely issued forbidding non Palestinian Muslims and Christian Copts from going to Jerusalem. For the Muslim fatwa-issuing Imams, visiting Jerusalem was tantamount to a sinful act, in addition to being a political deviation from long-held anti-normalization policies with Israel. In fact most Arab countries subjected their citizens to public ridicule and even jail terms if their passports showed a visa stamp from Israel.
Most of the Muslim-majority countries have no diplomatic relations with Israel- Turkey being the significant exception. The controversy has reached its peak primarily in Egypt and to a lesser degree in Jordan, the two Arab and Muslim countries with signed peace agreements and full diplomatic relations with Israel. Notwithstanding, the popular narrative is vastly opposed to any expression of normalization with Israel until it ends its military occupation of all Arab lands. Consequently, very limited people-to-people relations exist due to the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
The visit by Egypt’s Grand Mufti came not long after another influential Muslim scholar, Qatar-based Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian, said in a religious fatwa last month that Muslims should not visit Jerusalem “because it requires dealing with Zionist embassies to obtain visas.” Variations of this ruling have been made for decades. Similarly, Egyptian Christian Copts since at least 1979 were banned from coming to Jerusalem at the behest of the late Pope Shenouda III. However, the Egyptian semi-official newspaper, Al-Ahram, reported recently that close to 100 Copts flew to Israel in defiance of the restriction.
Egypt, it should be noted, along with Jordan, has full diplomatic relations with Israel. This includes ambassadors, aviation, and some trade links – but little else. Normal unhindered relations, however, have been (at least officially) nonexistent and is a source of political haggling by rival political parties.
A Malaysian Imam, however, issued a fatwa that not only blesses the Jerusalem visit but also actually encourages the practice. Dr. Abdullah Al-faqih of the World Fatwa Management and Research Institute ruled, “We believe that visiting the Aqsa mosque helps Muslims know the hardships encountered by their brothers in Palestine and thus motivates them to do their best to help these oppressed and colonized brothers. Finally, we did not find any evidence forbidding visiting the Aqsa mosque even while it is under the Israelis occupation.”
A prominent New Jersey Imam with recognized Islamic jurisprudential qualifications is considering a close look at the issue. When pressed to elaborate, he first warned of efforts by some scholars to turn the matter into a losing battle where the faith of differing opinions is questioned. He urged a reexamination of the prohibition fatwa by taking into consideration the required conditions necessitating a fatwa. He expressly focused on the ‘facts-on-the-ground‘ condition that seems not to have been given sufficient weight in the fatwa prohibiting the visit. A thoroughly examined fatwa is forthcoming soon, I was promised.
Interestingly, Mahmoud Habbash, Palestinian Authority Minister of Waqf and Religious Affairs, called on Imam Yusuf Qaradawi to retract the fatwa he had earlier issued prohibiting non-Palestinians from visiting Jerusalem as long as it is occupied by Israel. Habbash stressed in a statement that Qaradawi’s fatwa contradicts Islamic teachings and provides a free service to the Israeli occupation that aims to isolate Jerusalem from its Arab and Islamic surroundings.
While I am an ardent advocate of the BDS movement against Israel to end its occupation, I think that visiting Jerusalem must be excluded from the forbidden acts. The long-held argument that linked visitation with ‘normalization’ must be reexamined based on its positive and negative consequences.
More than ever, I am of the opinion that visiting Jerusalem by non Palestinian Arabs and by all Muslims should have the blessing of our religious scholars and political leaders. Here is why:
A- People do not extend recognition to a state’s sovereignty; only states recognize each other. Therefore, when a Muslim from Malaysia visits Jerusalem, obtaining a visa is only a routine task conveying no official recognition of Israel. In fact, Palestinian President Abbas, a supporter of large-scale visitation to Jerusalem, echoed a statement made by the late Jerusalemite, Faisal Husseini, who said “that visiting a prisoner doesn’t equate recognition of his jailers.” The debate over visitation, I hope, should not lead to an overbidding on who cares more about Jerusalem or to imply a weakening of the blood-nurtured bond with which Palestinians and Jerusalem have been linked.
B-Visiting Jerusalem, even while under Israel occupation, is an affirmation of its central place in Islam and the passion Muslims hold for its connection to Islam and especially Prophet Mohammad’s links to the city as so reverently told in the Holy Koran. Similarly, Christians Arabs will be providing a much-needed moral and financial boost to Palestinian Christians who face the same discriminatory practices at the hands of the Israeli occupation. A recent “60 Minutes” segment exposed the eventuality of ending the Christian presence in Palestine due to the Israeli occupation.
C- Jerusalem’s Arab residents, both Muslim and Christian, are teetering on the brink of economic collapse. With the Separation Wall completely encircling the city, preventing millions of West Bank and Gaza Strip residents from visiting and spending money there, foreign tourists are deliberately dissuaded from patronizing Arab owned shops or hotels. Gone are the Arab tourist guides who told the true story of Jerusalem. Israeli policies have debilitated the Palestinians’ souvenir and hospitality industries, which injected the local economy with much needed foreign currency and employed thousands of Palestinians.
D- Instead of banning Muslims and Christian Copts from traveling to Jerusalem, I call instead for active plans to ensure that millions should descend upon Jerusalem to make their pilgrimage. True, Israel will reap its visa fees. But Israel will, and in a most personal way, begin to appreciate the eternal link Muslims and Arab Christians have to their beloved city- the city of the miraculous Night Journey to Heaven and the place of Christ’s Tomb. If even hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Muslims visit Jerusalem next year, Israel will most likely consider closing the gates of Jerusalem. Over time, the attachment for Jerusalem by millions of Muslims and Arabs will undergo an irreversible transformation. Jerusalem will no longer remain an Arab Palestinian concern but a worldwide Muslim one. While Muslims and Arab Christians have an almost metaphysical passion for Jerusalem, a walk down its alleys will provide a lifelong quest for its eventual return to Arab rule- a bond that no fatwa could ever prevent.
Dr. Aref Assaf is president of American Arab Forum, a think tank specializing in Arab and Muslim American affairs.